(Related article: 2(1) Patterns of Plot, Revisited)
(EDIT: This article was originally published on 6/14/11. It was updated and edited, 3/7/13)
(EDIT: This article was originally published on 6/14/11. It was updated and edited, 3/7/13)
I've been thinking about plot progression lately. You know, all that painful yet necessary stuff that must be written between the story’s beginning and its end.
For me, as well as most writers, this is always the hardest part about starting a new script. How the heck to I keep the audience's attention for the 75-100 minutes it takes to go from the story’s inciting incident to its climatic end? How can I keep the story developing, the momentum building, and the conflict escalating over that enormous stretch of time?
As usual, my search for answers began by analyzing of a large pool of successful films too see how they managed to do what they did. It look no more than a few minutes before I began to notice patterns emerge. All of the movies in my pool could be grouped by the manner which their stories unfolded. The most surprising thing about this was that movies that seemed to have nothing in common on their surfaces nevertheless had plots that advanced in the exact same manner. So far, I have identified twenty groups to share.
(If you are eager to see these 20 Story Types right away, feel free to jump to the list below. Just make sure to return to the supporting information afterwards so everything will make better sense.)
The first thing you may notice is that drastically different movies coexist within the same category. Star Wars, The Godfather, and The Big Lebowski share a group. As do Iron Man, Shrek, and Schindler's List. Though to a casual viewer these films have little or nothing in common, they share the exact same pattern of plot. This suggests that a story's method of plot progression has absolutely no connection to genre or tone. Story type proves to be an independent factor, one that when combined with other factors such as genre, tone, and character selection, turn the story into a seemingly unique and individual viewing experience.
I am aware that for centuries dramatists have created lists of the “Nine Basic Story Types,” or the “38 Types of Plot.” These lists always seem more like dusty old archaic novelties than anything of actual use to a working writer. However, there is a good use to be found in the patterns I present below. This list becomes an immense help when it comes to jump-starting a script from a mere story idea, to an outline, to an eventual finished draft. When most of us begin a new script, we start out with a premise, some main characters, a beginning, and (hopefully) an end. But the rest is remains a gray, murky void. What must be done to develop this original idea into a fully functioning narrative most appropriate for the chosen premise? By going through this list and finding the group that your premise fits into, you will get an idea of how the type of story you wish to tell tends to advance. Once you have a general idea about how your story type typically develops, the journey through that treacherous second act and into the third will become a much smoother path.
Now, before anyone yells out the dirty word, these are indeed FORMULAS. I know most artistic types treat the word “formula” as if it were some kind of disease, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with using a formula as a jumping-off point. Formulas arise because certain patterns have been proven successful again and again. When used broadly or figuratively enough, every formula provides necessary structure while remaining wide open for millions of potential creative permutations. Formula becomes a problem only when it is followed with such uninspired imitation that it turns into cliché. By first finding which group your story will fits into, you will establish a secure starting point for your new script by rooting it into a structural pattern that has been proven dramatically solid. From that point on, you can diverge and embellish upon the simple principles of each type without fear of the story getting lost in the woods. Please remember that story type is only one factor of what makes an individual story what it will eventually be. There is nothing cookie-cutter about following story types. You will notice that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Alexander Payne’s Sideways share the same story type. Are they shallow mirror-images of each other? Of course not. Other independent factors; such as genre, tone, individual character qualities, setting, and the details of each film’s premise; make each story individual and unique even though, under the surface their plots follow a similar pattern. Despite all fears of being “formulaic,” it certainly beats the anxiety of letting your story wander about in the dark, desperately seeking some sort of effective shape or form that never manages to materialize.
What follows is by no means an exhaustive list. These are only the categories that I have identified to date. Other categories may exist, and the inclusion of certain films in one category over another can at times be debatable.
(NOTE: Citizen Kane proves to be an anomaly on this list. It fits into two groups, all mattering on how one chooses to view its plot. If one believes the main plot of Kane to be its frame story, in which the action is moved forward by a reporter's quest to find the meaning of Kane's last words (meaning the reporter is the story's protagonist), the plot fits into Group #10, The Simple Task Prolonged. If one considers the frame story to be mere gimmickry, and Charles Foster Kane to be the protagonist, then Kane fits into Group #13, The Rise & Fall.)
(EDIT: Since writing the original version of this article, I have completed a year-long project involving viewing of over 300 films for the purposes of identifying, among other things, each film’s story type. I had three criteria for inclusion in this study. 1. The film must contain a “traditional” narrative. This means a protagonist-centered linear narrative aimed at a mostly mainstream audience. In other words, the type of film Hollywood typically produces. I did not include nontraditional “experimental” or “art house” films in this study because, by their very nature, these films eschew accepted norms of storytelling in favor of a film that values other aesthetic means of expression over that of pure narrative. 2. The film had to be generally considered “good” by public opinion. I realize this is based on widely-differing personal tastes and opinions, but you do not want to take screenwriting instruction from known bombs like a Batman & Robin or a Friday the 13th Part XIII. 3. With the exception of a few dozen “classics” still considered successful by modern standards, the films must have been produced within the last fifty years.
Here are the results as relevant to this article: Of the 300+ films analyzed, nearly all fit snugly into one of the following twenty categories. Interestingly enough, the films found most dramatically successful, by both critics and popular opinion, were time and again those that followed the patterns of their story type the closest. Other films that were not easily defined, or those that seemed to borrow traits from more than one category, were ones that typically meet a less enthusiastic response from both audiences and critics. From this, one might make the early conclusion that the more a film conforms to the patterns of its story type, the more success it typically has upon the audience. Those that fail to follow their story type have lesser success. (This is still a vague theory at this time. More investigation is necessary for any conclusive statements.) In addition to this, my study has caused me to make two changes to the following list. First, a new story type has been added:“The Big Mission.” Second, I have decided to downgrade Type #3 “Reclaiming the Throne” to a sub-type either Type #2 if its narrative is antagonism-driven, or Type #6 if protagonism-driven. (Nevermind the techno-babble here. It is beyond the scope of this article.) However, I have the “Reclaiming the Throne” type on this list for the sake of posterity.)
These plots focus heavily on their protagonists. The protagonist's character arc is a primary area of attention.
1. An Innocent Abroad
(An innocent hero becomes unwillingly swept up in events beyond his or her control. For the story's first half, the hero is relatively passive, reacting as he or she is continually attacked by an outside force. At the midpoint, the hero takes control of his or her destiny, taking decisive, willful action to fight back. The character arc goes from weakness to strength.)
2. The Small Man (Woman) Rises
(A more or less unremarkable protagonist is thrust into a situation where he or she is expected to achieve greatness. The hero is chosen by an outside power to take part in this task, often against the protagonist’s wishes. The hero's first attempts are hampering by personal flaws, such as a lack of confidence, naivete, arrogance, or ignorance. Nurtured by supporting characters, later turning points are a series of tests in which the hero must prove his or her worth, usually failing before finding success.)
Men in Black
The Silence of the Lambs
3. Reclaiming the Throne
(The protagonist is a person of former greatness who has fallen into disgrace or insignificance. He or she receives an opportunity to be great again. To do so, the protagonist must overcome his or her own flaws and insecurities, as well as the negative perceptions of others. Often allies are necessary to do this. Plot develops through story events that create gains and setbacks in the hero's pursuit of his or her goal.)
The Cinderella Man
4. Taking on the Mantle
(You could call this type the “jerk conversion.” The protagonist starts as an antihero – someone who is capable of being a hero, yet is unwilling due to selfishness or some other personal flaw. Events invade the protagonist's life to force him or her to take on the role of a hero. Though the protagonist may face a large threat from a force of antagonism, the protagonist's biggest obstacle is his or her own resistance to personal change. Development occurs when story events force the protagonist to change his or her behavior bit by bit from self-centered to heroic in order to reach the main story goal.)
On the Waterfront
5. The Healing Narrative
(The protagonist starts the story somehow wounded. He or she is then given an objective that will heal this wound, whether the healing be literal, figurative, or symbolic. Though the hero is met with external conflict on his or her journey, the real moments of development occur whenever story events force the hero to overcome his or her resistance to healing, get out of his or her comfort zone, and face the unknown.)
The Sixth Sense
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Good Will Hunting
6. Character Drive
(The protagonist begins the story unhappy with the quality of his or her life. The protagonist willfully chooses, without being directly forced by an outside force of antagonism, to take actions that will make his or her life better. Conflict comes from the resistance the protagonist encounters as he or she tries to alter the status quo. Development and escalation comes as the protagonist deals with obstacles in the way of change, as well as complications created by others who push back against the hero's efforts.)
Coming to America
Dances With Wolves
These plots are driven forward more by their forces of antagonism than their heroes. Often these heroes seem helpless in their struggle against the story’s events. Many of these films contain villains more memorable than their heroes.
7. The Unstoppable Beast
(A “innocent” hero is targeted by some malevolent force, a force that will not stop until the hero is destroyed. Plot develops as each escalated attempt by the protagonist to escape the force is denied. Finally, in the end, the hero chooses to fight back.)
The Bourne Identity
A Beautiful Mind
No Country for Old Men
8. The Infecting Agent
(The protagonist's world is invaded by a malevolent force that slowly destroys everything around it, threatening the protagonist as a result. Development is caused by the hero's progressive attempts to escape or destroy the agent, set back by the agent's refusal to give in.)
The Dark Knight
The Usual Suspects
The difference between an Unstoppable Beast and an Infecting Agent is the nature of the malevolent force's destructive actions. An Unstoppable Beast specifically targets the protagonist, but only the protagonist. It is a heat-seeking missile. The Infecting Agent, on the other hand, is like a virus. It poisons and destroys everything it encounters, not so much by will, but because that is its nature. The Terminator is out to kill Sara Conner, and only Sarah Conner. He only kills other people when they get in his way. Michael Meyers of Halloween, on the other hand, kills indiscriminately. He murders randomly because it is his nature to destroy all life. The Dark Knight's Joker is a psychopath whose nature is to spread violence and insanity wherever he goes. Though he does target the Batman at a certain point in the narrative, he only does so only because it helps him achieve his true desire: throwing Gotham City into maximum chaos.
These plots focus less on character and more on developing the course of the story action itself.
9. The Literal Journey
(The protagonist is tasked with traveling to a specific physical destination and perform a certain action once he or she arrives. Most of the story is made up of the journey itself. Plot development and escalation occur by means of obstacles that are continually thrown in the way of the protagonist's progress and the actions taken by the protagonist to overcome them. )
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
The Wizard of Oz
Little Miss Sunshine
10. A Simple Task Prolonged
(The protagonist is given a task that seem simple at first, but at each turning point, the protagonist meets failure or delay, forcing him or her to continue the quest indefinitely.)
Saving Private Ryan
Citizen Kane (the frame narrative)
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
11. The Snowball of Complication
(The protagonist receives a task that seems simple at first. However, at each turning point, the protagonist either learns through new information that the task is more complicated than previously understood, or an outside event complicates the problem into something much bigger and more complex than it was before. This pattern is often found often in wild comedies or stories with a large element of mystery.)
Back to the Future
The Big Lebowski
The Maltese Falcon
The Simple Task Prolonged and the Snowball of Complication start in a similar manner. However, the key difference is that with the Simple Task, the original task (the story problem) remains more or less the same from the start of the story to its end. This is a bit like if you went out late at night looking for a place to eat and must spend hours driving from one place to another because every place you visit is closed. In a Snowball of Complications, the original task constantly morphs into a larger and more difficult situation. This is like driving around searching for a place to eat, then running out of gas, then getting your wallet stolen, and then running afoul of the police because you no longer have your ID.
12. The Chess Match
(An already strong hero is put into conflict with an equally strong enemy. The plot advances as both sides take actions in direct opposition to the another. Turning points and escalation occur when acts by one party cause setbacks for his or her adversary, forcing that adversary to up the ante and strike back.)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Touch of Evil
13. The Rise & Fall Narrative
(An ambitious hero takes actions to achieve great success despite large personal flaws. The story's first half develops by way of various obstacles that attempt to block protagonist's path and the protagonist’s actions to overcome them. By the midpoint, the protagonist reaches the height of his or her success. After this point, either the protagonist becomes corrupted, or the protagonist's flaws catch up to him or her, causing things to fall apart. The remainder of the story develops from the protagonist's attempts to fight back against an escalating series of misfortunes, inevitably meeting failure due the protagonist’s inability to overcome his or her negative traits. In the end, the hero either meets destruction or gives up the life that brought him or her success. This is the opposite of The Small Man Rises.)
Citizen Kane (flashback narrative)
(500) Days of Summer
14. The Vengeance Narrative
(The story begins with the hero betrayed, often left for dead. The hero returns to enact justice on the betrayer. The first half develops by way of a series of willful steps taken by the protagonist to achieve this revenge. At the midpoint, the betrayer becomes aware of the hero’s efforts. The betrayer then complicates the action by taking action against the hero. From this point on, the plot resembles The Chess Match.)
Batman (1989) (structurally, the film actually treats the Joker as the protagonist and Batman as the antagonist)
The Godfather II
15. Man (or Woman) Against Society
(The protagonist or an ally of the protagonist exists in a world where he or she treated unfairly. The source of this mistreatment comes not from a single character, but from society writ large. The protagonist takes action to make the story world treat him/her or his/her ally in the way that he or she deserves. Plot develops as the members of society create obstacles to resist the protagonist’s efforts for change, forcing the protagonist to take larger actions to continue.)
The Elephant Man
The Big Mission
(The protagonist is tasked (voluntarily or involuntarily) with an elaborate, seemingly impossible mission. The size and significance of this mission requires extensive preparation and a large supporting team. The mission itself is the plot's main focus. Plot tends to follow a predictable pattern: a. assembling the team, b. planning the mission, c. the launch of the mission, d. a major turning point that threatens success, e. the mission's ultimate success or failure. Parts c & d are sometimes reversed.)
The Dirty Dozen
The Magnificent Seven
Rather than focusing upon a single protagonist, these plots revolve around the relationship between two or more equally-weighted characters, often both considered the story’s protagonist.
16. The Spoiler
(A protagonist feels threatened by the addition of a new person or thing to his or her world. This is only a perceived threat. It has not yet, or may never, become a legitimate one. Often, the rival’s threat exists only in the protagonist's imagination. Nevertheless, the protagonist takes action to undermine the new rival. The character arc follows a downward trajectory. Plot develops as the protagonist's actions meet failure or when events escalate the perceived threat’s danger. This forces the protagonist to commit more and more unheroic actions until either these actions come back to ruin the protagonist, or the protagonist chooses to surrender his or her fears and embrace the rival. The Spoiler works in the opposite fashion as Taking on the Mantle.)
The Magnificent Ambersons
17. Reconciled Rivals
(Two sympathetic characters, one or both the protagonist, come into a personality conflict. The plot develops as the two are forced into a situation where they must work together in order to achieve a mutually desired goal. Obstacles and complications test their ability to cooperate, forcing the characters to first overcome their inter-personal conflicts before they reach success.)
When Harry Met Sally
The King’s Speech
Scent of a Woman
18. Loving Alliance
(Not one, but two protagonists meet and find comfort in each other's companionship. Together, they find the help and strength they need to fight against their individual problems. Plot develops as persons or events outside of the pair’s control take action to separate their alliance. The protagonists must then fight back in order to keep that alliance together. This type is usually found in “romance” or “buddy” stories.)
Lost in Translation
Bonnie & Clyde
19. Yin & Yang
(These stories have dual protagonists – two main characters given equal dramatic weight that have diametrically opposed character spines. The opposed character spines make each protagonist the other’s antagonist. Plot usually develops in a push/pull dynamic similar to the Chess Match as both sides take action to achieve their story goals, threatening the other protagonist in the process. If only one of the two protagonists is heroic, the story ends with one side defeated. If both are heroic, both sides typically resolve their conflict and unite against a common enemy.)
There’s Something About Mary
20. The Ensemble Narrative
(These stories typically have large casts and are composed of actions that takes place over multiple separate, yet connected story planes. It is difficult, or impossible, to single out one character as the sole protagonist. Ensembles treat plot as several independent stories intertwined under a single premise, often giving each plane its own protagonist. Plot develops within each plane almost independently, with each storyline connected only by occasional shared events and the incidental influence of one plane’s turning point upon the events of another. Edit: the author no longer considers the Ensemble Narrative to be a Plot Pattern. It is instead an alternative form to the traditional narrative structure.)
Black Hawk Down